Flaws of Harvard-hosted Digital ‘Public’ Library of America: Too secretive, too oligarchical and not responsive enough to U.S. library needs—especially for modern e-books

Update, Oct. 20, 2012: The DPLA is now much more open than in the past, and I can now strongly recommend the group to prospective funders.

A fashionable line in the media these days is, “Elections have consequences.” So does governance, whether of the local Rotary Club, the United States of America, or a Harvard-hosted group serving as a quasi-shaper of national digital library policy.

imageAlas, the so-called Digital “Public” Library of America has refused to live up to the P word.

It would not let me, or the public, attend a steering committee meeting and workshop across the Potomac from me. The financial cost to the group would have been zilch, and I’m hardly a casual follower of this topic—my e-library views have appeared in publications ranging from the Washington Post to the Chronicle of Higher Education and LibraryJournal.com. I couldn’t even be a silent audience member on Monday. The DPLA as of this writing apparently has yet to offer a detailed report via the e-mail discussion list even though some brief notes presumably are on the way (a DPLA workshop report by a California librarian Nate Hill for the PLA blog is online and terrific on tech matters, but is not that enlightening for those of us who care about the huge governance issues—I don’t know if Nate was at the actual steering committee meeting itself: I’ve e-mailed him).

imageA truly P-worthy group might have broadcast the entire meeting online, live or delayed, especially since one of the 17 steering committee members, Carl Malamud, is an expert in the related technology and is known for his opposition to government secrecy and advocacy of the public domain. Besides, hasn’t Chair John Palfrey (photo) coauthored a book full of observations on interactivity, which can’t happen at its best without all the facts? And isn’t member Maura Marx head of a group called Open Knowledge Commons? But this “Public Library” closed its meeting to the public. Doubt it matters? Well, consider that another steering committee member, Deanna Marcum, is a top official at the Library of Congress, while yet another, Susan Hildreth, is director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an agency awarding federal grants. Did Dr. Marcum’s boss, Librarian James Billington, strike a deal with Robert Darnton, the proposer of the DPLA who, relevantly or not, at least shared past institutional ties with Billington, via the history departments of Harvard and Princeton? One way or another, the public’s business is happening behind the public’s back. Why is a Harvard-hosted organization, not the White House, Congress, and the Library of Congress, in charge? With more openness from the DPLA, I’d be understanding. With a closed, oligarchical approach from Berkman and friends despite the P, I’m far, far less sympathetic.

imageAmusingly in a black-humor way, the suitability of the P word was to be one of the issues before the DPLA Steering Committee this week. Any vote? Results? Which members voted which way? No, I wasn’t the only one worried about the DPLA’s name unwittingly preempting the franchise and branding of local public libraries in time, or at least aiding their enemies. I now propose that the DPLA keep its initials but rename itself the Digital Private Library of America. For now at least, this is an academic oligarchy with too much influence from the crew at Harvard’s Berkman Center—nice people, but annoyingly and profoundly out of touch with America’s true library needs. The DPLA’s non-d governance makes a mockery of the “Republic of Letters” ballyhoo with which the organization started, and it does not augur well for the governance of, and diversity of content within, the actual library, assuming one happens. I don’t care if the DPLA steering committee is “informal” and not necessarily the final body. The current DPLA, in openness, should set a positive rather than negative example.

imageBerkman, host of the DPLA, has its share of good motives—not just gifted individuals—despite all the Harvard-style PR and the hope of expanding the empire. But I still can’t help recalling a classic line from the late William F. Buckley, Jr., my political opposite but a believer in my digital library vision even in the early 1990s. “I would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Manhattan phone book,” he said, “than the entire faculty of Harvard.”

I think Bill would have quickly seen through the DPLA’s deft blarney directed at the public library world. Just three local librarians, all from big cities, none working at a small-town library, sit on the DPLA Steering Committee. No school librarians or other K-12 educators do, belying the DPLA’s rhetoric about being school-friendly. Although nonHispanic whites will be a minority in the United States well before the end of the century, just one African-American and one Hispanic serve on the DPLA Steering Committee to my knowledge—better, at least, than the number, 0, who sat there before I protested after seeing hardly any nonwhite faces among the scores of participants at the March workshop of the DPLA. months after the group’s formation. No one from a technical or scientific department of a university serves on the committee, either (even though the main deficiencies are on the local public library and K-12 sides). Likewise AWOL is any representation from the publishing community.

I applaud the liveliness and lack of tight moderation of the DPLA mailing list, as well as the wealth of information and ideas on the Wiki. But it’s the steering committee that counts infinitely more in the end: mailing lists won’t be chasing after tax money or positioning themselves as “public” libraries. Harvard’s basic strategy, as I learned first-hand, is to haul in people from out of town, pick their brains, then purge them from the in-person side of the DPLA unless they click their heels eagerly enough, particularly if they’re not part of the inner circle. That is is how Berkman aims to control both the DPLA’s image and destiny, to the maximum extent practical, despite the freewheeling nature of the e-mail list.

Ivy Lee, the master manipulator of public opinion, would have been proud, and at the other extreme, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky might well consider the DPLA to be a classic display of “manufactured consent” (aided by the kneejerk support that so many policymakers and even people at the grassroots level show toward anything with Harvard involved).

Here’s one end result of this closed-minded, too-controlled PRish approach insulating the individual board members from full accountability by personal name. The DPLA has not paid sufficient attention to the real issues that concern me (for example, working toward sustainable and adequate financing of e-books and other content for public and academic libraries alike, and helping to make the books more accessible to low-income people through the spread of the right technology and the provision of adequate support). I love interactivity and user-created content whatever the format, but appropriate e-books for typical library patrons will help as well, along with, say, a national reference service available 24/7. Academia is still the DPLA’s main priority, while I believe in a more balanced approach.  We really need two well-stocked national digital library systems—the Scholarly Digital Library of America (academic, of course) and the National Digital Library of America (public) for reasons I’ve supplied in detail. The DPLA won’t assure me this will happen, much less give me a deadline.

I’d also like to see a less lawyerly approach from the DPLA and more flexibility toward publishers. Being connected with Harvard Law School, Berkman may well come with a built-in conflict of interest. It appears to be more eager to joust with copyright-holders (yes, although I’ve spent years arguing as a citizen against Draconian copyright law, I’m one like every other writer) than to work out creative compromises benefitting all, especially K-12. I love the First Sale doctrine and heartily dislike the idea of libraries being forced to pay onerous usage fees on library books. On the other hand, if there’s no other way to do a well-stocked national digital library system, perhaps libraries could pay user fees in return for affordable, long-term contracts and shorter copyright terms, either by law or in individual cases, as well as convenient storage on library servers. Libraries and publishers need to spend more time lobbying together for library appropriations at all levels of government, with all those political donations from entertainment conglomerates actually creating tailwinds rather than headwinds. I blame both publishers and libraries for this not happening. Yes, times are tough, but the right digitization approach could actually save libraries money in the long run. We also need systematic cost-justification of library-friendly hardware for ordinary Americans. But the DPLA is too full of itself and too fascinated with technological experimentation to seriously ponder such heresies.

So I’m once again backing off from participation on the DPLA mailing list, at least, since I have better uses for my time, both as a writer and library advocate. Rather than favoring the DPLA with so much free advice based on my years of e-library advocacy, the LIbraryCity.org blog just might broaden its focus to other digital matters for libraries, librarians, and their advocates. I’m still planning a review of the iPad from a library perspective and will include a bonus: a comparison with my Android tablet (I’ve written on e-gizmos for years). And I’d love to get involved in library initiatives intended for “flyover country” and other places and people outside the American elite. The DPLA may talk a good small-d democratic line and perhaps come up with some useful open source software along the way, but in terms of the issues dearest to me, it’s too oligarchical and too Harvardcentric to hold my interest to the extent the DPLA did in the past.  Is the DPLA a waste of your time if you’re a formal or informal participant? Should you drop out or reduce your participation? That’s an individual choice. But me—I’m scaling back. The digital library issue is, to a great extent, an education-and-worker-training issue in disguise, and, alas, I see the needs of Harvard and friends coming ahead of those of K-12 students and other Americans, especially in small non-university towns and rural areas so often dissed by the bi-costal elite.

Photo: “Harvard Yard as seen from the Holyoke Center,” by Chensiyuan (credit and usage information here).

Details: Yes, I’ve canceled plans to critique the DPLA’s software project, which, though extremely useful in certain ways, is being used as a distraction from the most major library issues such as adequate funding of content. Also, the above is a “first edition” and I may be tweaking.

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on “Flaws of Harvard-hosted Digital ‘Public’ Library of America: Too secretive, too oligarchical and not responsive enough to U.S. library needs—especially for modern e-books
16 Comments on “Flaws of Harvard-hosted Digital ‘Public’ Library of America: Too secretive, too oligarchical and not responsive enough to U.S. library needs—especially for modern e-books
  1. Pingback: The Googlization of Everything & the DPLA | onereadleaf

  2. Pingback: The Digital Public Library of America « Hack Library School

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